“HOW CAN I EXPLAIN TO THEM THAT IN THIS WAR, I AM DEFINED BY MY NATIONALITY, AND BY IT ALONE?...THE TROUBLE WITH NATIONHOOD, HOWEVER, IS THAT WHEREAS BEFORE, I WAS DEFINED BY MY EDUCATION, MY JOB, MY IDEAS, MY CHARACTER -- AND, YES, MY NATIONALITY TOO -- NOW I FEEL STRIPPED OF ALL THAT.”
– SLAVENKA DRAKULIĆ, THE BALKAN EXPRESS
Reading the diary Slavenka Drakulić kept during the Yugoslav Wars made me want to study nationalism. She captured beautifully and painfully how quickly our identity can be sacrificed to circumstance. Granted war is perhaps the most extreme example, but in small ways every day, our desire to define ourselves is in conflict with a world trying to tell us who we are.
Religion was not a big part of my life as a child, but I grew up with an extended family that was deeply Catholic and in a town where almost everyone I knew was too. I remember being uncomfortable attending Mass during family reunions, and being told by one relative that I was probably going to Hell. I vividly remember a friend telling me she really struggled with my not being Catholic because “I feel like you are a really good person,” as if being Catholic and being a good person were mutually exclusive ideas. At many moments in my childhood, before I was anything else, I was “not Catholic.” The significance of the label was the otherness implied by those who spoke it. Religion was never a conversation about what I believed; it was one about what I didn’t. In many ways, it wasn’t a conversation about religion at all, and it certainly never extended to what was important to me.
Now as a 31-year old woman, I find that the world is quick to label me in other ways – particularly that I am “not a wife” and “not a mother.” The questions I’m asked when I meet new people or get re-acquainted with others are repetitive and unimaginative. Sometimes, it goes further and people assign meaning to why I’m single and don’t have kids. They say I am career-oriented or that I’m selfish and trying not to grow up. Others offer pity or to try to comfort me, clearly ignoring the fact that I’ve expressed no sadness on the subject. Recently, I ran into an old classmate who asked me what was new. I talked animatedly for five minutes about dancing and the play I’m writing. When I finished, he said, “Cool. What else?” I shared a little bit about a recent vacation with friends. He nodded, paused and said, “Anything else?” And then I got it; it was just a less direct way of asking the same questions about a spouse and kids.
The funny thing is that these labels – not Catholic, single, childless – don’t relate in any way to how I see myself or how I wish others saw me. To me those things are true, but largely irrelevant to my story. I am a writer – that is how I enter this world. I am a friend nestled in an extraordinary tribe. I am a tanguera. And I am a human inextricably linked to the lives of others.
What Slavenka Drakulić was mourning in her journal was the loss of her individuality, of ceasing to be seen for the things that were important to her and instead being reduced to the sum total of what was happening around her. I don’t equate my experiences with hers, but I also haven’t met anyone who can’t identify on some level with that struggle. We measure each other against the way things have been and the way we are told things are supposed to be. We measure each other against the things that we fear and what we hope for ourselves. None of us are innocent of this instinct. But beyond all the real world dangers this can sometimes present, not allowing someone to share how they identify themselves deprives us all of connection.
My favorite question we asked during the interviews for our American Dream piece was, “What question do you wish people would ask you?” Some people wanted to tell us about their children, others spoke of their jobs. Some people wanted to expound on a hobby or the trip they recently took. Some wished for an honest conversation about where they are from and how they got here. But by far, most people wanted to be asked, “What are you most proud of?”
I’ve thought a lot about it, and the truth is there isn’t a perfect question I wish people would ask me, and I know there isn’t a single question that we’d all universally like to be asked. But my wish is that when someone asks me a question, she does it without a pre-determined idea of what the answer should be. That if she asks about my job or religion or family, she asks because she genuinely wants to know something about me, and not where I fit into her neat schematic of the world.